Reading Group Guide
About the Book
When long-hidden secrets about his past come to light, John Wade—a Vietnam veteran and recent candidate for the U.S. Senate—retreats with his wife, Kathy, to a lakeside cabin in northern Minnesota. Within days of their arrival, Kathy mysteriously vanishes into the wilderness. As a search begins, several explanations, all of them disturbing, rise to the surface in this unforgettable story about the vagaries of memory, love, and deception.
1. Consider the narrative structure of the novel. Why has Tim O’Brien chosen to tell his story by moving around in time rather than following a conventional chronological timeline? Why does he reveal Kathy’s disappearance so early in the novel? How do the conjectures about Kathy’s fate fit into the structure? How does O’Brien connect the novel’s narrative threads?
2. About the main characters, John and Kathy, O’Brien writes: “They wanted happiness without knowing what it was, or where to look, which made them want it all the more” (p. 2). What does happiness mean to them? Is it possible for them to find it? Were they ever happy together? What does it mean to you to be happy?
3. “Evidence” chapters (such as chapter two, which is a collection of excerpts, quotes, and exhibits) are scattered throughout the book. What effect does the blending of fictional and factual evidence have on your reading experience? How do John’s magic tricks serve as evidence? Did any of the evidence presented seem questionable? Or is all evidence questionable? Is evidence anything more than what is merely “evident”? Can so-called evidence sometimes result in incorrect conclusions?
4. In the chapters entitled “Hypothesis,” who is doing the hypothesizing, and how reliable is this narrator? What effect does O’Brien achieve by placing “Evidence” and “Hypothesis” chapters side by side?
5. Kathy thinks that “more than anyone she’d ever known, John needed the conspicuous display of love. Love without limit” (p. 55). How does this need inform John’s decisions? How does John come to be this way? Where in the novel does John express love, and what does it mean to him?
6. When Kathy tries to ask John about what has been revealed about him during the election, he responds, “Everything’s true. Everything’s not true” (p. 56). What does he mean by this? Do we ever find out what is and isn’t true about the questions raised throughout the book? Is truth itself a slippery concept? Can so-called truths evolve over time, or is truth absolute and unchanging? Which of the novel’s characters, if any, are able to confront hard truths directly? Do we sometimes try to erase hard truths about ourselves or about others as a way of coping and surviving?
7. Kathy and John both have secrets — or at least they think they do. John likes to spy on Kathy, but we learn from Patty that Kathy has known about his spying all along. John does not seem to know that Kathy hates politics, though this is obvious to his campaign manager, Tony. What other secrets, or so-called secrets, do the couple keep? How well do John and Kathy really know each other? What are other characters’ perceptions of their marriage?
8. How does John carry his father’s suicide with him throughout his life? How are his memories of his father different from the father we see in flashbacks and in other characters’ memories?
9. In Vietnam, John sees two snakes in a circle, each swallowing the other’s tail. What does this image come to represent to John? What does John mean when he says that sometimes “one plus one equals zero”?
10. O’Brien puts great emphasis on John’s memories: “In the days that followed, John Wade would remember all the things he should’ve done . . . He would remember smoothing back her hair. He would remember pulling a blanket to her chin and then returning to the living room, where for a long while he lost track of his whereabouts” (p. 51). What purpose does this repetition serve?
11. O’Brien also draws attention to what John does not remember: “He would both remember and not remember a fleet human movement off to his left. He would not remember squealing. He would not remember raising his weapon, nor rolling away from the bamboo fence” (p. 109). Are there differences between the types of things that are and are not remembered?
12. John Wade’s mother says, “John had all kinds of extra names . . . maybe it sort of helped to call himself Sorcerer.” This is followed by the suggestion that “the life of a pseudonym is the life of a dead man, of one who does not exist” (p. 265). How is this true of Sorcerer? How is John Wade the politician different from John Wade the Sorcerer?
13. What is the significance of the phrase “Kill Jesus,” which John keeps repeating the night Kathy disappears?
14. On page 157, Kathy says all she ever wanted was a “goddamn baby.” Do you believe this is really all she ever wanted? Why does John ask Kathy to have an abortion? What other sacrifices do they make for each other?
15. For John Wade, what exactly happened during the Thuan Yen massacre? How does O’Brien reveal these details, and what was your reaction to them? By what name do most Americans know the village of Thuan Yen? How much do you know about what actually occurred in that village in March 1968?
16. “He thought about the difference between murder and war. Obvious, he decided. He was a decent person. No bad intentions” (p. 212). Why did John shoot PFC Weatherby? Did John murder Weatherby, or was the killing an act of war? What is the difference?
17. The narrator reveals himself in footnotes. Who is he? What is his role in this story? Why has he chosen to tell this story in particular?
18. What do you believe happened to Kathy? What does the narrator believe? Why does O’Brien leave the mystery of her disappearance unsolved? Is it possible, as the narrator suggests near the book’s conclusion, that John and Kathy had planned their own mutual vanishing? Do people sometimes go missing from their own lives? Could John and Kathy now be living in Verona, seeking some elusive happiness?
19. Can John Wade’s excessive secrecy, deception, self-deception, and efforts to erase his own history be interpreted as a critique of America itself at the time of the Vietnam War?
Copyright © 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier and Hannah Harlow.